John Key and his Government have chosen an unfortunate time to announce that New Zealand will not sign up to the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, this country will become a “fast follower” of international climate change policy – a phrase coined more than five years ago by David Skilling, the former head of the New Zealand Institute, at a time when the then Labour Government was developing a world-beating emissions trading scheme, Australia had still not ratified the Kyoto Protocol and US policy was dominated by people who doubted that human-induced climate change was real.
Skilling’s advice back in 2007 was that New Zealand, as a tiny contributor to global emissions, shouldn’t put its economy at risk by taking a lead on climate change policy, but should instead be poised to adapt quickly to changes in international policy. Much has changed since then. Australia, our closest ally, has ratified Kyoto and imposed a carbon tax. On the same day that New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister, Tim Groser, announced that this country was pulling out of Kyoto commitment period 2 (CP2), Australia said it was signing up for it. And the US – still the world’s largest emitter and a country that has never signed up to Kyoto – is in the midst of a sea-change with regard to climate-change thinking. Superstorm Sandy, which left large parts of the US metropolitan Eastern seaboard devastated and facing years of painful recovery, has created a new awareness that climate change is happening, and that its impact on communities is terrifying.
As former prime minister Helen Clark, now head of the United Nations development programme, pointed out recently, opinion polls in the US now show that a “large majority” of Americans think human-induced climate change is a big problem. Indeed, Clark told an audience at Stanford University on November 8 – two days after the presidential election and, coincidentally, the day before Groser announced New Zealand’s move away from Kyoto – that “the costs of inaction are increasingly clear to all … The longer we wait to act, the more costly the damages and solutions become.” The prospect of limiting global warming to no more than 2°C is looking increasingly slim. The International Energy Agency warned earlier this year that, on current emission trends and policies, global temperatures will rise by at least 6°C by the end of this century, putting the world into “dangerously uncharted territory”, said Clark.
In the context of the mounting evidence, it is hard to characterise New Zealand’s decision to back away from the Kyoto regime of binding commitments as the act of a responsible nation playing its part in the search for a solution to the world’s most pressing problem. Likewise, the Government’s progressive moves to strip the ETS of meaning and impact – in particular by removing the biggest emitter, agriculture, from the scheme indefinitely – sends a signal that it sees climate change as not its problem. Of course, when it comes to climate-change policy, nothing is quite that straightforward. Key says New Zealand will still set emission-reduction targets, but it will do so under the UN Framework Convention, which allows countries to set their own goals.
In doing so, it is lining up alongside the countries responsible for 85% of global emissions, including the US, China, Japan, Canada and Russia. And it’s worth noting that some of the most progressive climate-change initiatives are being developed outside the Kyoto framework: China, for instance, will pilot emissions trading in some of its largest cities and provinces from next year, and India plans to start emissions trading in 2014. A major report this week from green growth lobby group Pure Advantage highlighted the enormous opportunities for New Zealand in such areas as sustainable agriculture, geothermal power, energy efficiency and smart-grid developments. The challenge for Groser and Key is to make sure the decision to dial back New Zealand’s climate-change policies doesn’t reduce the incentives for entrepreneurs to exploit these opportunities for the benefit of everyone. And that, in trying to position this country as a “fast follower”, they don’t instead condemn us to a reputation as irresponsible laggards.